The Self-Delusions of Empire


Each generation views history through the lens of its own political standpoint. During the 19th century, Whig historians had no qualms about arguing that the present was the blessed culmination of years of development along predestined lines. Sir Thomas Macaulay, in his monumental ‘History of England’, wrote that his purpose was to show:

how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible

The system of liberal capitalism that prevailed in England was the foreordained consequence of centuries of progress, and the task of the historian was to trace the lineaments of this nascent ideal as it manifested itself across the ages.  Accordingly, the history of Whig authors omitted uncomfortable episodes that sullied this admirable record, dwelling chiefly on the machinations of Kings and political elites and having little room for the uncouth masses, except as distracting interludes in their documenting of the real formative events that gave rise to modern era. Whig historians attached, for instance, an importance to the political events of 1688 that now seems faintly ridiculous, seeing in the replacement of James II by William of Orange, of one Catholic King by another Protestant King, a key turning point in the establishment of English liberties. With not a hint of irony, in their writings they dubbed it the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

The recent proposed changes to the school curriculum in England represent an attempt to revive the narrative tropes of Whig history, complete with its inordinate focus on great men and vaunted English liberties. Students will receive a salutary education in the essential events that shaped the nation, studying English history in chronological order from the Stone Age up until the election of Thatcher. They will be taught about Admiral Nelson, General Wolfe, Gladstone, Disraeli, Magna Carta and a host of other figures and seminal moments in our steady ascent to greatness, so as to impart a ‘high-quality’ education which will equip them with the ability to think ‘critically’ about the past.

On the face of it, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the education secretary Michael Gove’s insistence that history should be taught chronologically, as opposed to thematically. But since it is of course impossible for students aged 5-18 to cover in depth the full sweep of British history, there is an obvious problem of selection that arises. The question is whether we wish, as our Whig predecessors, to revel in the present as the best of all possible worlds, seeing in the past a gratifying confirmation of our moral grandeur and triumphant march into modernity, or whether we view history with an eye to shaping the future, studying the radical voices and movements that battled powerful interests, by opposing the horrors of imperialism and striving to achieve social justice for the oppressed. Gove evidently favours the former self-congratulatory world view, and is savagely attempting to foist his blinkered perspective on the nation’s students. His efforts, as with all his reforms of late, have evoked a rising tide of opposition from the ranks of experts, with the principal historical organisations criticising the new curriculum’s narrow focus and the fact it was decided in the absence of any ‘systematic consultation’ with historians or teachers. Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, noted that the proposed changes were nothing more than ‘rote learning’ of ‘patriotic stocking fillers.’ David Priestland, Professor of Russian History at Oxford, concluded that it marked a reversion to the type of simplistic history found in the Edwardian children’s book ‘Our Island Story.’

There is, however, a cohort of public intellectuals who have obligingly lined up to pat the education secretary on the back for his courage in taking on insipid left-wing ideas. David Starkey, with his typical brashness, expressed his horror that there were no students on University Challenge who could correctly name the British King that had been deposed by the revolution of 1688. This lamentable lack of historical knowledge among British youth, Starkey argued, could be traced to years of left-wing teaching that disdained facts in favour of modish, politically correct approaches to learning. Starkey would be even more horrified to learn, in the equally outraged words of Daily Mail columnist Toby Young, that ‘according to a BBC poll, half of Britain’s 16- to 24-year-olds cannot identify Sir Francis Drake as the naval commander who helped defeat the Spanish Armada.’

Starkey’s and Young’s vapid musings on the subject aside, history as taught in schools has been the butt of criticism by a number of professional historians, convinced that nothing but a radical overhaul will suffice to correct the irremediable left-wing taint of the current curriculum. In a letter to the Times, 14 academics observed that the changes had ‘long been needed’, and last month the doyen of neocon historians, Niall Ferguson, girted himself for battle and derided Gove’s critics for their ‘pomposity’ in supporting a system that is ‘indefensible’ and resulted in school-leavers ‘knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution.’

These critics seem blind to the inevitable outcome of attempting to condense 2000 years of subject material into 10. As a result of the reforms, students will be left with only a trivial grasp of key dates and a passing knowledge of historical periods, which is all teachers can reasonably hope to instil in the course of a few hours of lessons a week. In other words, students will end up with an even shallower understanding of history than they are currently accused of possessing. And since the ambitious span of years and consequent superficial coverage does not admit of detailed inquiry, they will be even less competent to question the perverse rendering of history they are being inculcated with.

Fundamentally, Gove’s selection of topics is entwined with his reactionary outlook, his conviction that the present economic order is basically just and political power is a prerogative exercised by the privileged few. From this contented perspective, history is a repository of dead facts out of which can be constructed a nationalist tableau, comprising heroic statesmen, generals, and benevolent imperialists, but not unlike the sombre paintings of morally edifying scenes and grand personages that bedeck the walls of a manor house, meant to be gazed at and nothing more. The idea of history as an inspiring record of struggle to achieve change in the face of obstinate opposition from political and economic elites, as well as a dire warning of the horrendous suffering wrought by empire, does not occur to Gove, probably because he finds little to object to in either imperialism or oligarchy. History, rather than a stimulus to action, is reduced to a dignified procession of the great and the good.

Why, we may well ask, are episodes such as 1688, the replacement of one King by another, of such momentous significance that every schoolchild should be forced to learn them to the exclusion of other, arguably more notable events? David Starkey may be angered by the fact 1688 seems to have been overlooked in schools, but I suspect he is less enraged about the lack of knowledge regarding the general strike of 1842, though this is a date almost certainly less well known than the glorious revolution. During that year, half a million workers downed tools to demand universal manhood suffrage, in an event that was surely of far greater import to the democratisation of our political system than the aforementioned royal game of musical chairs.

Though the Chartists are mentioned in the new curriculum, the great waves of social protest that wracked Britain throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and to which we owe many of the liberties that Gove is eager to present as striking testimony to the munificence of our ruling classes, merit only token references. What allusions there are to radical movements are so shorn of context that it becomes easy for students to infer that the major moral divides of the period were personified by Gladstone and Disraeli, or Salisbury and Chamberlain, whilst the material betterment of the masses sprang from a series of non-contentious reforms, such as the Factory Acts, introduced on the initiative of generous-hearted MPs, unprompted by fears of social revolution. The liberal reforms of the early 1900s that laid the grounds for modern welfare relief are covered, but you will search in vain for mention of any of the innumerable mass strikes that inspired politicians and businessmen of the time with terror, right up until the eve of World War 1. Nor are the multiple strikes in the coal industry that followed the war and the general strike of 1926 referred to, though the abdication of Edward VIII in favour of his brother Albert is absurdly inflated into a ‘constitutional crisis.’ In the midst of this Whiggish manifesto, the ‘Chartists’ and the ‘birth of trade unionism’ thus appear as curious anomalies.

Part of the support for the new curriculum stems from a belief that students are already familiar with the ‘left-wing’ version of history. The proposed changes may betray a conservative world-view, but the imbalance in coverage has for too long been in the opposite direction, and a radical revamp will hopefully go some way to supplying a via media between two political extremes. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, likened the debate over how history should be taught to a Civil War battle raging between Cavaliers (Labour) and Roundheads (Conservatives). Whilst they were in power, Labour sought to impose its left-wing view of history on schools; now it is only fair that Gove and his ‘new model army’ should be given their chance. Considered from outside the narrow confines of the party system, however, the fact is left-wing approaches to history have never been predominant, with history teaching always inclining to favour those of a conservative disposition.

Over the last ten years, Britain has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and been militarily embroiled in bombing missions against several other countries.  Now calls are being voiced for further action against Syria and Iran with increasing stridency. You would think that Britain’s history afforded sufficient proof that the imperialist project is inherently pernicious, that people would hesitate before credulously accepting that occupying other countries can be considered an exercise in compassion, but not only have these foreign wars failed for the most part to provoke comparisons with the horrors of imperial rule, but the history of empire has been perverted to subserve the rapacious designs of politicians bent on war. The last decade has witnessed a recrudescence in imperialist apologetics, as numerous column inches, documentaries and books urge us to shed our undeserved sense of shame and take pride in the supposed legacy of stable governance we bequeathed to our former colonies. Aggrieved citizens of these territories have been berated for wallowing in self-pity and expecting us to harbour some residual guilt for the crimes of our forebears. British rule undoubtedly lapsed into violent repression, it is acknowledged, but these periods were short-lived and do not fundamentally detract from the good-natured manner in which the British administered their provinces. Indeed, some of these encomiums to imperialism leave the impression that there were no conquered peoples at all to administer, and the empire was nothing but exotic scenery populated by intrepid explorers and elaborately attired army officers. Jeremy Paxman’s latest offering epitomises the general dross written on the subject. Entitled ‘Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British’, it views the colonies as a convenient backdrop for Britons agonising over their self-identity.

It is this level of self-delusion regarding the true nature of Empire, fostered by vacuous media coverage and years of conformist teaching, which enabled David Cameron last month to straight-facedly claim during his trip to India: ‘I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events.’

For many in Britain, Cameron’s remark probably sounded a perfectly sober chord, mindful of the Raj’s failings, yet nonetheless not unduly critical of imperial rule in light of its undeniable achievements. But consider for a moment the true purport of those ‘bad events’ Cameron hazily alludes to. Presumably he had in mind the deaths of up to thirty million Indians in the course of successive famines during the late 19th century.  Or he could also have been referring to the fratricidal violence that ensued from the British decision to partition India, in which an estimated one million people are calculated to have died. In the context of these grave crimes, Cameron’s pretence to even-handedness is akin to defending Hitler’s record by citing the fact he built motorways.

The celebratory air that has insinuated itself into media coverage of empire is fittingly mirrored by the tales of imperial derring-do that litter the new curriculum, the main defect of which is its excessive conventionality: its reinforcement of standard perceptions that British rule was an essentially benign affair. In the burnished image of Empire that emerges, Clive of India and the various players in the ‘Great Game’ are figures of epic stature, so epic in fact that they eclipse the grim fates of 30 million famine victims who are entirely missing from Gove’s list of jingoistic tidbits. There is likewise no mention of the Irish famine, which is generally reckoned to qualify as the most calamitous famine in proportional terms of the 19th or any other century, reducing Ireland’s population by a quarter in 5 short years. Stripped of this frame of reference, the insistent demand of these countries for self-government seems like the slightly mystifying product of nationalist eccentricities. For what other reason could Indians and Irishmen have for demanding independence of their kindly masters?

It’s unsurprising that historians like Niall Ferguson are so besotted with the endearing portrait of imperialism that the curriculum sketches.  Ferguson has led the charge of current apologists in attempting to show that the British Empire was the least bad of all its rivals, having asserted in his book (‘Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World’) that in contrast to its counterparts ‘so powerful and consistent was (the) tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct against the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character’, a statement which surely would have come as a surprise to many of Britain’s harried subjects. The Irish famine barely registers in Ferguson’s book, whilst the Indian famine of 1876 is raised in a few paragraphs only to be curtly dismissed with the trite remark: ‘But would Indians have been better off under the Mughals? Or, for that matter, under the Dutch – or the Russians?’ Michael Gove, like Ferguson, is similarly taken with the notion that Britain’s empire constituted something unique, and is a possible model worth emulating in our future dealings with failed states. In a seminar on liberal interventionism last year he contended ‘there have also been more benign empires, and in that I would include almost pre-eminently, the British.’

Even if true, arguing that Britain’s Empire was less bad than those, for instance, run by the French or Dutch is a curiously barren exercise, no more than a competition to see which country can claim the morbid plaudit of having the fewest million deaths on its hands. With a similar sense of misplaced pride, supporters of Nazism could justifiably claim that apolitical individuals, who happened not to be Jewish or disabled, were at a lesser risk of being imprisoned or executed in 1930s Germany than Russians living under Stalin.  This is rightly not thought of as a good reason for praising Nazi Germany. Yet this is exactly the same deranged logic that Gove and Ferguson appeal to.

The underlying purpose of focussing on the tawdry exploits of such individuals as Clive of India becomes even clearer on a further perusal of the curriculum’s treatment of the 20th century. Students will study the rise of the dictators (by which presumably is meant Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin) and the impact of Communism on Europe during the Cold War era. Teachers are enjoined to pay particular attention to Nazi atrocities by educating students in the ‘unique evil of the holocaust.’ The implication is that communist and fascist dictatorships were fundamentally novel developments sharply distinguishable from the 19th century forms of imperialism that preceded them.

This almost exclusive concern with the crimes perpetrated by our historical foes in preference to our own, however, conceals a good deal of evidence to the contrary. Hitler’s vision of lebensraum in the East, with the Slavs as an exploitable source of labour, was striking dissimilar to the attitude adopted by most Western nations towards their colonies in one respect: Hitler’s dreams of Empire happened to centre upon mainland Europe, rather than Africa or Asia.  As racist and rabidly anti-semitic as Nazism was, it’s significant that the Holocaust was only embarked upon amid a war of unparalleled dimensions initially launched to realise those imperial ambitions.

Returning to the subject of famines, the focus upon Stalinist Russia is equally instructive. In the popular mind, the Soviet Union’s legacy is indelibly associated with the brute repression and millions of deaths inflicted by Stalin’s dictatorship. But it is often forgotten that the majority of those deaths were the result of famines that Stalin did nothing to alleviate and, indeed, brought about by the relentless pace of his attempts to industrialise the country. His insistence on extracting more grain from the peasantry to fuel his schemes inexorably led to starvation on a mass scale. In relation to famines that occurred in Britain’s colonies, historians of the Niall Fergusson school seem to imply that they arose as a result of natural blights aggravated by the muddle-headed indifference of the authorities to the extent of the catastrophe. In reality, contrary to these consoling myths of benign neglect, these famines were just as much the dire corollary of a society in the vicious throes of radical restructuring as the famines that wreaked devastation in Russia. For both Ireland and India were being ruthlessly remoulded into capitalist economies to better facilitate their exploitation. Mike Davis, in his seminal work ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’, brilliantly captures the essence of this process:

Despite the pervasive ideology that markets function spontanteously (and, as a result, “in capitalism there is no one on whom one can pin guilt or responsibility, things just happened that way, through anonymous mechanisms”), they in fact have inextricable political histories…. “Millions die” was ultimately a policy choice: to accomplish such decimations required (in Brecht’s sardonic phrase) “a brilliant way of organising famine.”

Just as Stalin conceived of famine as a tolerable price to pay in the interests of industrialisation, British officials were invested with a similar sense of higher purpose as they contemplated the emaciated millions at their mercy. In Ireland, the response of Westminster to the  failure of the potato crop beginning in 1845 was to keep government handouts to a paltry level, eventually withdrawing from the provision of relief altogether for fear of impinging on the profits of grain speculators. At the height of distress in late 1846, the chief Secretary of the Treasury Charles Edward Trevelyan, in charge of dispensing relief, declared with his customary callousness: ‘God grant that we may rightly perform our part, and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing.’ To many in government the famine represented a favourable moment for refashioning the Irish economy, relieving the land of its burdensome population by reducing reliance on the subsistence potato crop, and encouraging Irish landlords to reform their estates, expel their indigent tenantry, and introduce more efficient modes of farming. Evictions were allowed to proceed unchecked, whilst in order to receive government relief men had to demonstrate they rented less than a quarter acre of land, as a means of inducing them to relinquish their smallholdings.

Similarly, any view of the Indian famine of 1876-9 as simply owing to the failure of the monsoon is woefully lacking. This calamity, in which a possible 10 million Indians died, followed years of abundance during which much of the surplus crop had been exported to England. As the crisis progressed, a network of railways enabled the transport of grain away from the worst afflicted areas. Once more, the population was left to the tender mercies of speculators, who drove up the price of grain to a level beyond what many Indians could afford. The viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, more concerned with cutting a dazzling figure in the proxy war being waged against Russia in Asia, steadfastly refused to curb the operations of merchants by imposing price controls. Relief works were belatedly set up, forcing half-starved Indians to travel miles to undertake hard labour at designated sites in return for a ration which, Davis notes, was less than that given to the inmates of Buchenwald.  As in Ireland officials believed that large government spending on relief would lead to profligacy and foster an attitude of feckless dependence among the poor. Famine was to recur in India in 1896 on an even severer scale, leading to approximately 10 -20 million deaths.

Many contemporary officials no doubt regarded these famines with a sneaking sense that they were, in the words of Trevelyan, a ‘blessing in disguise’,  both the ineluctable result of Malthus’s bleak predictions as to unsustainable population growth, and at the same time an object lesson to the poor of the dangers of excessive breeding combined with indolence. Today imperialists are less effusive about the corrective value of these cataclysmic events, but are nonetheless given to regarding them as either unfortunate aberrations from an exalted ideal or, at worst, the regrettable but inevitable accompaniment of empire’s civilising mission. Niall Ferguson in the introduction to his book puts it rather well, though missing the significance of his point as regards every other murderous dictatorship that has ever graced the earth:

The question is not whether British imperialism was without a blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity.

The very same moral imperatives used to justify imperial avarice, of the ends in some way rendering the means more palatable, could be advanced with  rather better justification to defend the depredations of Stalin’s dictatorship. For, in spite of the deaths arising from famine and possibly because of them, Stalin did accomplish his goal of industrialisation, without which it can plausibly be argued the Soviet Union could not have withstood the Nazi onslaught. The question Niall Ferguson poses is difficult to answer, however, only for those who agree to forego a belief that another world, operating on fundamentally divergent lines, is conceivable, and implicitly accept the merciless economic logic of exploitation invoked by imperialists and dictators, according to which any policy however morally debased can be justified.

One of the grave defects of current historical study consists in the pseudo-scientific cast of mind accepted by most historians. As history strives to adopt the dispassionate methods and impersonal terminology of the sciences, historians have imbibed a false notion that approaching history with a political or any kind of moral purpose in mind is inherently at odds with rational inquiry into the past, detracting from the scholarly quality of one’s writings. Already supporters of the new curriculum have sought to impugn their critics by accusing them of peddling a politicised version of history.  It’s a slur that one suspects Whig writers of the 19th century would have been quite perplexed by, since, as the quote beginning this article makes clear, they took obvious pride in Britain’s political system and boldly set out to justify it by recourse to the past. The current proponents of Whig history prefer a less brazen approach, pretending to view the past from atop an elevated plinth whence they can deride their opponents for scrabbling in the political dirt.

If history truly aspires to model itself on the sciences, then it must discard the specious conviction that scholarship and political belief are incompatible. A good deal of scientists’ research is conducted with a practical purpose in mind, such as finding a cure for some disease, or developing greener forms of energy consumption. This is rarely considered cause for condemning their researches as unscientific. Yet historians in practice balk at the idea that we should study the past for anything but its own sake. The point is not that we should aspire to view history from a lofty height; most historical study is ultimately invested with a purpose, and it is the historians who declaim loudest against politicised history who are usually its most ardent practitioners.

As the great historian Howard Zinn argued, it is impossible to be neutral on a moving train. We must eventually choose either to take up the cause of the oppressed or the oppressor. We can opt either to derive from history lessons of use in our continuing efforts to elaborate the contours of a future, more equitable society, or we can adopt the perspective of those contented with our current lot by hallowing the actions of the powerful. The new curriculum makes it clear what side of history Gove and his followers are on.

Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford. His blog can be found here: